Cape Town is a hidden gem particularly for Western tourists from the Northern Hemisphere who are looking for somewhere warm to visit during their winter season. It’s got the familiarity of being at home with a dash of cosmopolitan city life (for those not living in the likes of London) and a great African vibe that you’ll instantly come to love. So why not read on to find out why hopping on a plane and visiting the “Mother City” is your next best idea.
- Getting to Cape Town
- Getting around Cape Town
- Cultural Cape Town
- Being Adventurous
- Eating out
- Living like a local
Getting to Cape Town
Many airlines will fly into Cape Town and those that don’t will most likely fly into Johannesburg where you can easily book a transfer flight. Arrival into Cape Town is a swift process and you’ll soon find yourself having cleared immigration and ready to explore. We organised an airport pick-up with our hostel and it is worth looking into the options most suitable for you as there is no connecting rail or metro link. The information desk is very helpful if you do have any queries once you have arrived.
Getting around Cape Town
Cape Town is surprising small so many areas can be reached on foot or using local transport. Taxis also provide a cheap and reliable way to get to the more distant places you want to visit and some areas can be reached cheaply and safely via train. Getting around will depend on where you choose to stay. We stayed in the Sea Point area not far from Green Point. During the day we were able to walk to most places including town to access museums, the V&A Waterfront, the beach, restaurants and much more. When in a rush or during the evenings we used a mixture of local mini-van shared taxis (between 7am & 6pm) and private taxis (such as CabNet or using Uber). To access the local areas of Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Simon’s Town on the Cape Peninsula we purchased the tourist train pass allowing you unlimited access of the line (so you can get on and off as many times as you like) for a full day. At R35 (approximately £1.60) this was a great way to explore at minimal cost. It was also a popular choice with many other tourists and you felt very safe using the easy to navigate system.
If you haven’t got long and want to see a lot in one or two days, Cape Town also has the international chain of Citysightseeing buses allowing you to hop-on-and-off all day long. There are also a number of private companies who will show you around for a day or more including: free walking tours; half and full day township tours; half and full day adventure tours (see ‘Being Adventurous‘ below); and single or multi-year tours with established companies such as Cape to Addo (also known as Cape Xtreme). We can only comment on the providers we used who were actually excellent in our opinion but as always we would urge you to shop around to find something that works for you.
Cultural Cape Town
Cape Town like any major city has lots to do especially with regard to learning more about the history and culture of South Africa. You can read more about this side of Cape Town in an upcoming blog, but just to give you some idea about what we were able to explore in our seven weeks in this amazing city:
- Robben Island – a UNESCO world heritage site and location where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 19 years.
- Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is the home to a 150 year old working harbour as well as some of the most modern styles of design and architecture. A microcosm of the city of Cape Town.
- The South African Museum – part of the Iziko museum group in Cape Town, this museum looks at the natural history of the area including some impressive rock art pieces and a detailed look at the flora and fauna of the area starting with the dinosaurs. The museum also incorporates a planetarium charting the myths the early South Africans had about the stars as well as the role South Africa is playing in the future of astronomy.
- The National Gallery – a collection of all things art both traditional and contemporary.
- District 6 Museum – detailing the forced relocation of 30 000 of people when this area was designated a whites only zone under the Group Areas Act.
- Heart of Cape Town Museum at Groot Schuur Hospital – like me you may not have known that the world’s first human heart transplant was carried out here in Cape Town by Dr. Christiaan Barnard and you can follow the journey from idea to reality including a full work-up of the operation in the original operating theatre.
- Chavonnes Battery – detailed information about the original defences to protect Cape Town from would-be invaders.
- Cape Point Lighthouse Museum – outlines the dangers facing those early explorers as they tried to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope and the many shipwrecks that occurred.
- Historic Walking Tour at the V&A Waterfront – a self-guided (though you can pick up a guided tour at regular intervals) walk through some of the most historical points of interest down at the V&A Waterfront.
- Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens – discover a 103 year old garden and the world’s first botanical garden. In summer this is also the location of the Summer Concerts programme.
- Groot Constantia Vineyards – South Africa is one of the key players in the wine industry and this location in particular is the oldest vineyard outside of France.
- Simon’s Town Naval Museum – a naval town containing a museum that celebrates the South African Navy as well as allowing you to see inside a mock-up of a submarine.
- Simon’s Town Railway – worth a ride as you head out of Cape Town, past Muizenberg and along the sea to Simon’s Town.
- Bo Kaap – the area where slaves were originally housed and now a vibrant area popular for trying Cape Malay cuisine.
- Walking tours – almost always free they cover everything from getting your bearings in the city; exploring District 6; walking the streets of Bo Kaap; and even sampling South African cuisine on a food tour.
- Visiting exhibitions – visiting exhibitions are extensive and we were fortunate to see ‘Titanic: the artefacts’ as well as the ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year.’
The above list is not a complete list of all of the cultural and historical things that can be done in Cape Town but merely a list of what we covered in the small time that we were here.
Cape Town has a variety of activities for those wanting to live life to the max and try something adventurous. There are a range of activities to suit all tastes and to overcome all fears. Some activities you will find to be only a fraction of the cost back home and others are more unique to the area. We didn’t try everything (money being the number one limiting factor followed by time constraints and then fear!) but here are a list of some of the possible activities you’ll find in and around the Cape Town area:
- Bungee Jump
- Crocodile cage diving
- Full moon hike up Lion’s Head
- Helicopter rides
- Hiking Table Mountain
- Kite surfing
- Ostrich riding
- Quad biking
- Sand boarding
- Seal Snorkelling
- Sea Kayaking
- Shark cage diving
- Sky diving
- Zip line tours
We opted to use Cape Xtreme (also known as Cape to Addo) to book many of our tours as they were linked with our hostel. We found them to be affordable (they do a price match guarantee), safe and great fun. As always shop around to find the best fit for you but if you’re not sure what’s out there then when not contact them if only for some inspiration and price ranges.
For more on adventure activities and to find out which ones we tried then why not sign up for updates to our blog as we will be producing a whole post on “Adrenaline Cape Town” in the near future.
What do you fancy eating? Whatever your answer you’ll find something to satisfy those taste buds in Cape Town and often at surprisingly low prices. There is everything here from the chance to try a range of game meats (crocodile, ostrich and more) to local Braais (think as much meat as you can eat and then some) and then to cuisines from all over the world. Not exhaustive but some of the foods we sampled included:
- Game meats (crocodile, ostrich, kudu, springbok, venison & warthog) from Mama Africa and Karibu
- Local Braai (South African BBQ with amazing flavours) from Mzoli’s in the Gugulethu township
Northern and Southern Indian, as well as Arabic food from the Eastern Food Bazaar
- All you can eat sushi for around £5 at our local Asian restaurant
- Tunisian from the V&A Food Market which has food from all over the globe as well as drinks and desserts which you can enjoy inside or outside looking out to Table Mountain.
- Seafood – with many restaurants getting fresh seafood from the boats daily, Cape Town is a great place if you like something a little fishy or want to try something new. A local favourite is Snoek and Kalky’s was definitely the best place to eat it.
- Fast food – if you need something unhealthy and quick there are plenty of places to grab a burger, hot dog or shawarma!
Want to hear about our top choices for where and what to eat in Cape Town? Sign up for updates to our blog as we’ll be covering the popular and hidden gems of Cape Town in our “Culinary Cape Town” post coming soon.
Our time in Cape Town was as part of a volunteering project with Plan My Gap Year (PMGY). Therefore our accommodation was already pre-organised for us in a hostel style house with other volunteers. The area we stayed in was just off the Main Road in Sea Point (not far from Green Point) and we would definitely recommend the area as there are many hostels, guesthouses and hotels to suit a range of tastes and budgets. As always shop around and if travelling around South Africa then you might want to consider a BazBus hostel for easy pick-up for their hop-on-hop-off bus service.
We’re not usually the type to shop but having been on the road for so long, eventually certain items need replacing. Plus I’m always in need of a new postcard for my collection. The V&A Waterfront in particular has shops that sell all manner of things including clothing, souvenirs, travel accessories and electronic gadgets. Heading into town will see the prices drop as you shop where the locals shop or even have a go at haggling in the many markets that can be found – one of the best being that found in Greenmarket square.
Living like a local
Living like a local allows you to really experience a place in a way you can’t do as a tourist. It’s of particular importance if you are going to be here for an extended period of time as there comes a point when you have had enough of sightseeing. Living like a local does mean you have to get to know some locals to get off the beaten track and under the skin of the country. Try a homestay (these can be organised through a number of tour companies) in a township, volunteer in a community project, eat in a more ‘local’ restaurant or attend an event mainly frequented by Capetonians as opposed to tourists. We went on a walking tour in one township, had a Braai in two different townships, attended a local football match at Cape Town stadium and did a full-moon hike up Lion’s Head in true Capetonian fashion.
You can read more in our upcoming blog: “Alternative Cape Town” – sign up for updates so you don’t miss out!
No blog on South Africa would be complete without a section on safety. It may just be me (I doubt it!) but I was convinced that South Africa including Cape Town would be a potentially highly dangerous area to visit. I do however like to keep an open-mind and following the excellent advice from Bemused Backpacker knew that the world was not as scary a place as is often made out by the media or as discussed by those who have rarely (if at all) travelled. It’s true that based on statistics alone Cape Town (like many parts of South Africa) can be considered highly dangerous. However, with regards to Cape Town this is limited to certain areas where tourists are not going to frequent. So far (I am still in Cape Town and even after this have several weeks of South African travel to go), we have had no issues and other than one volunteer who lost (or maybe it was stolen) her phone there have been no problems with anyone I have yet to meet.
However, this does not mean that you should be complacent. South Africa, like any country, has the potential to be unsafe if you choose to disregard local advice and common sense. However, the fear that something may happen to you is not a reason to avoid travelling here. Come with an open-mind, don’t judge a place before you get here and use your common sense. If you want good advice about staying safe abroad then I refer you back to Bemused Backpacker – someone who has on more than one occasion set my mind at ease.
Have you been to Cape Town? Do you have any great recommendations for would be travellers to this amazing destination? Please feel free to comment below. If you would like to continue following our adventures as we explore more of South Africa, nip through Lesotho and then go via the Middle East to begin our Oz adventure then please sign up for updates.